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A Museum Blossoming in the Time of Coronavirus

Exhibition Review

Florals for fall?

by Sara Blad | 03 November 2020

Florals for fall? The Frans Hals Museum’s annual Museum in Bloom exhibition (24th October 2020 – 6th December 2020) eschewed its typical florals for spring this year, but not by choice. The coronavirus closed the museum in March and thwarted the annual spring themed exhibition. But the annual exhibition has reappeared in a fall iteration, and the schedule change presents a good opportunity to consider the link between the Frans Hals Museum and its annual Museum in Bloom exhibition. The Spring exhibition usually honors the important role of flowers in the Netherlands’ national identity, but what do they have to do with Frans Hals, the museum’s namesake? Hals was a seventeenth-century Dutch portraitist known for his dynamically unblended brushwork which imbues his portrait sitters with a lively appearance. Floral still life painting was a typically Dutch genre throughout Hals’ lifetime, and though the museum cheekily asserts that ‘Hals likes his flowers so much’, there is no evidence that Hals painted any despite having lived in Haarlem, the Netherlands’ flower capital. A flower does figure famously in Hals’ portrait of Isabella Coymans as she holds a rose out to her husband, Stephanus Geraerdts. The ghost of Isabella and her rose linger in the outstretched hand of her husband reaching out for the rose, despite the fact that she is separated from her husband who reigns over the Frans Hals Museum while she resides in a private collection.

Frans Hals, Portrait of Stephanus Geraerdts, 1650, oil on canvas, 115 x 87 cm, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Antwerp.

Frans Hals, Portrait of Isabella Coymans, 1650, oil on canvas, 116 x 86 cm, Private Collection.

Nevertheless, flowers feature throughout the Frans Hals Museum’s décor on various tiles and wallpapers, and each spring the museum participates in the country’s famous tulip season. Art florists design elaborate arrangements of local spring flowers. The focus of this exhibition is the museum’s vase collection which benefit from an opportunity to be exhibited as they were originally intended. The museum touts that it is ‘a rare sight’ to see and smell ‘fresh flowers and plants in a museum hall’. The museum planned to provide that ‘rare sight’ to visitors this fall. The Netherlands’ coronavirus lockdown prevented the museum from holding its Museum in Bloom exhibition that was to open in late March, as per tradition. While rescheduling the exhibition for the fall meant that there would be no fresh spring flowers to display, the museum could create new displays with fresh flowers unique to the fall season. And, thus we have this fall exhibition. The Frans Hals Museum locates its vases filled with fall floral art throughout the museum’s various rooms. While the vases and their floral counterparts are visually exciting, there is little to no descriptive information about each vase and the inspiration behind each floral design. The exhibition object labels are few and do not name the flowers, so only afficionados would know the species on display. Sometimes the vase and its flowers reflect the colors and shapes present in a given room, such as a dense bouquet of iridescent eye-spotted peacock tails and gleamingly gold leaves, which compliment a room’s gold leather wallpaper replete with blue floral designs and encased in glossy blue wood paneling. In other rooms, there is no visual association between the arrangements and their surroundings, which renders them as mere decorative objects secondary to a room’s paintings and photographs. For some reason, the Frans Hals Museum does not acknowledge that the flowers on display are artificial.

Photo: Author’s own.

Photo: Author’s own.

Indeed, the exhibition information online appears to assume they are fresh: ‘it’s perfectly possible’ to display fresh flowers ‘under strict conditions’. There was no real need to be illusive about the use of artificial flowers as it seems to be an ethical decision; fresh flowers would require frequent replacement, members of the museum’s association who would have been responsible for doing so are generally of advanced years. In fact, it feels as though the museum missed an opportunity to use the exhibition to address distortions between reality and artifice. Re-engineering nature has some precedent in the museum’s art. Hans Gillisz Bollongier’s Flower Piece (c. 1644) and Jacobus Marrel’s Flower Still-Life (c. 1645) beautifully present flowers grown in the Netherlands, and group flowers from all seasons together in a single image, or as the museum describes, ‘an imaginary bouquet’. Linking the artificial flowers with works like the imaginary bouquets of Bollongier and Marrel would have allowed the museum to educate visitors on the ways past and current artists manipulate nature to enhance their visions. There are potential rich interpretive layers here, but the museum does not address them.

Hans Gillisz Bollongier, Flower piece, 1644, oil on panel, 27 x 20.5 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. Photo: Margareta Svensson.

Jacobus Marrel, Flower still-life, 1645, oil on panel, dimensions unknown, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. Photo: Author’s own.

From 17th November onwards, florist Paul Wijkmeijer will design the floral arrangements using real flowers. How will the exhibition change once fresh flowers are in place? In these first three weeks, it is impossible to know, and perhaps we may never know. The Netherlands is currently in a partial lockdown, but one that enables museums to stay open. Yet, as coronavirus infections continue to rise, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will address potential further restrictions in a press conference on Tuesday, 3rd November 2020. The NL Times reported that as health experts increasingly call for a temporary full lockdown to limit the infections, Rutte is considering all scenarios, including a stricter lockdown. What does this mean for museums and the rest of the Frans Hals Museum’s Museum in Bloom exhibition? I hope we can see the Frans Hals Museum bloom again after 17th November, but if Rutte enforces a harsher lockdown that would force museums to close. Perhaps we’ll have florals when the museum reopens and blossoms again.


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